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Howard T. Owens has found his next act.
The former National Geographic Channels president has launched Propagate, a content company with the financial backing of A+E Networks. Owens suggests his decision to return to the production end of the business came after several conversations with confidants including A+E chief executive Nancy Dubuc, and a realization that he was happiest in his career when he launched production company Reveille with fellow William Morris vet Ben Silverman in 2002.
In the new endeavor, Owens will be paired with former A&E general manager David McKillop, who will join him in segueing back to the seller side as a partner and chief creative officer at the newly formed company. McKillop will relocate from New York to L.A., just as Owens returned to L.A. after exiting D.C.-based Nat Geo in the spring of 2014. Though the studio will be L.A. based, Propagate will be bi-coastal with an office in New York as well.
“The idea of starting a content company in a world where content is at an even higher premium — there are more distributors than ever, and there’s an ability to self-distribute is really exciting to me,” says Owens, who will serve as the company’s founder and CEO. Despite the financial commitment from A+E Networks, Propagate will be able to sell to all networks and platforms without any kind of first-look arrangement. The latter was key, noted Owens, who adds: “It was important to me to work with a partner who granted me complete independence. … I don’t need to bring them anything.”
Though Propagate hadn’t formally launched until now, Owens and his team have been busy assembling a slate of unscripted projects, with a handful already in play at networks. Though he’s keeping mum on specifics, he says the current focus is on genre-bending unscripted projects (docu-series, event-ized fare), formats and scripted/unscripted hybrids a la Duck Dynasty at McKillop’s former network. Looking ahead, Owens would also like to produce scripted fare, just as he did at Nat Geo with projects including ratings smash Killing Kennedy.
He has already begun to assemble a team of producers with whom he’s worked before, too, including Jarrett Lambo (Jersey Shore), Charlie Marquardt (Moonshiners) and Brad Tiemann (Bad Girls Club). Owens describes Lambo and Marquardt as his “go-to guys at Nat Geo who helped us fix shows in peril,” and adds that Tiemann ran one of the shows that Owens is most proud of, MTV’s The Buried Life, while he was at Reveille.
Owens first discussed the opportunity with McKillop this past fall, when the latter was still running programming at A&E. The two had been friends for years, with McKillop, also a Nat Geo veteran, giving Owens advice when he took the job there in late 2011. Later, as A&E’s Duck was “decimating our and everyone else’s ratings,” Owens says with laughter, he’d “call David and bemoan that and my inability to program two nights a week.”
Together, the pair comes with several decades of experience, and a combined resume that features a murderer’s row of programs, including Pawn Stars, Deadliest Catch, Swamp People, The Biggest Loser and MasterChef. “Though we’re very different people, Howard and I share a track record of entrepreneurial creativity and hit-making,” adds McKillop. “Our partnership is well-timed to capitalize on the tremendous opportunity we see out there for experienced and visionary sellers.”
Settling on a name for the company came easier than expected. Propagate is as much a title as it is a philosophy for the company. “I’ve always felt that one of my strengths from the time that I was an agent is collaborating with creative people, and essentially making one plus one equal five, or 10 or infinity,” says Owens. It was also a word he used often in the pages of National Geographic magazine, and he jokes that he also may have been subconsciously influenced by the Watergate complex, which he passed daily during his bike rides to the Nat Geo offices in D.C.
Though these are still early days, Owens intends to apply his learnings from this three-year stint as a buyer as he looks to navigate the increasingly competitive arena. Among them: the value of studying the networks and other distributors to whom he’s selling, and making sure that his fare is as relevant and as high-quality as possible in that process.
“The thing that I learned at Nat Geo is that while it is an incredibly crowded landscape, it’s not a crowded landscape for great stuff, and buyers are craving quality content,” he says. “There was a ton of a stuff that I saw there that we didn’t do because I didn’t think it was great; but when I saw something that I liked, whether it be Killing Kennedy, Life Below Zero, Inside Combat Rescue or Ultimate Survival Alaska, we pounced on it.”
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